WNC reacts to new living wage rate

Randy Talley
LIVING WITH WAGES: Randy Talley, owner of Green Sage Café, works to strike a balance between employee pay and customer prices as costs of living rise. Photo by Linda Ray

It’s here, and it’s going up.

Just Economics of Western North Carolina, an Asheville-based nonprofit that advocates for more sustainable economic development, updated its hourly living wage for all Buncombe County employees to $17.70 in January. That rate reflects a 40-cent increase over the 2021 living wage for employees without employer-provided health insurance — and a $1.90 hourly raise for those with insurance.

Vicki Meath, executive director of Just Economics, says the decision to drop insurance from the living wage calculation reflects the need for higher take-home pay to cover employee housing costs. “The new formula allows a full-time worker to afford a one-bedroom apartment at fair market value, and since the ACA has made it easier for employees to get insurance, we felt it was more equitable for employers while giving workers a raise,” she explains, referring to the Affordable Care Act. “Everyone, whether you’re sweeping the floor or running the company, should be able to make a decent living and take care of their family without having to work two or three jobs.”

Over 450 local employers (including Mountain Xpress) are Living Wage Certified, and to retain that distinction, all must adjust their pay scales to the new rates by the end of the year.

Cost of living

Some small-business owners who rely on entry-level staff to run their operations are finding creative ways to maintain their living wage certification. Randy Talley, co-owner and CEO of Green Sage Café, instituted a 10% service fee in December, primarily to ensure that back-of-house staff like chefs, line cooks and dishwashers receive a living wage. He says he’s had a particularly tough time recruiting and retaining experienced cooks as pay has gotten more competitive.

“We pride ourselves on being a sustainable and community-oriented company, so we want to do right by our employees, too,” Talley says. “There’s a lot of pressure to raise wages but not to raise prices. I’m just trying to thread the needle.”

To educate customers, a sign is posted at registers in all three Green Sage locations that explains the purpose of the service fee. And business has stayed robust. Talley notes that he closed a fourth location at the Westgate Shopping Center in 2021 due to staffing shortages, not a lack of customers.

Talley adds that while some customers have grumbled about the new fee, most understand and appreciate what the money is for. He says some customers tell him they used to tip 20% but now tip 10% to account for the higher prices. “It works,” he says.

And a living wage commitment can boost a business’s appeal to shoppers like Daav Wheeler. The Asheville resident believes that employers who hire hard-to-place individuals and pay a living wage have a leg up on those that don’t. “It’s just a good business practice that can do wonders for a company’s public relations,” he says. “Consumers can support it by having a conscience about where they shop and maybe even pay a little more to support it.”

For Wheeler, it’s a moral issue, and he refers to the list of Living Wage Certified employers on the Just Economics website when he shops. “Business owners can think it places them at a competitive disadvantage [to pay a living wage] or advertise it and use it as a competitive advantage.”

Not everyone agrees. Hendersonville resident Linda Butera says people used to get second jobs to pay the bills and feed their families. “But people don’t want to do that anymore,” she says. “I think it’s crazy that they pay people at fast food places $14 or $15 an hour. Those jobs are supposed to be for kids and older people who need something to do.”

At 79, living in subsidized housing on a fixed income, Butera says that as prices rise at restaurants, she can’t go anymore. Without the recent bump in her food stamp allotment, she continues, she wouldn’t be able to eat at all because of rising prices.

Steady hands

Patton Avenue Pet Co. has been certified as a living-wage company for several years. Owner Jenna Wilson opened her first store in West Asheville in 2011 and now has three locations with 24 employees. She says she’s never had trouble finding good help, even over the past two pandemic years.

She feels it’s the secret of her success. “I’m not a greedy CEO,” says Wilson. “I believe that if you aren’t paying a living wage, you’re subsidizing your failing business on the backs of your employees.”

“Sixty to 70% of our employees bought houses since working with us,” she continues. “That’s what happens when you pay a living wage: People can actually afford to live.”

Regular customer Ellen Marion often drives from North Asheville to shop at the Patton Avenue Pet Co.’s downstore store and says that she’s glad to know the company pays a living wage. “I have a lot of friends who are having trouble making ends meet,” she says. Asked if she pays more at the shop because it pays a living wage, she says its prices aren’t more expensive.

Businesses that aren’t on the official Just Economics list also say they benefit from compensating their employees well. Dean Peterson, general manager of downtown Asheville retailer Tops for Shoes, says he wasn’t aware of the living wage certification but pays more than the nonprofit’s recommended rate.

Tops employees, nearly all of whom are full time and salaried, also receive health care, parking and a lunch allotment. Peterson says the Carr family, who’s owned the business since its opening in 1960, believes in taking care of each other.

Peterson has been with the company for 36 years and points to other staff with even longer tenures. Sales associate Denise Morton has worked at Tops for 38 years; when asked if it’s because of the money, she says, “Definitely. But it’s also a great place to work.”

Tops thrives without relying on low-paid, entry-level workers or sales commissions to incentivise employees, Peterson says, because the business charges suggested retail prices. “We don’t compete with discount stores, and we offer a level of customer service you rarely see in a shoe store anymore. It’s why locals and tourists keep coming back to shop with us.”

Help wanted

According to Nathan Ramsey, executive director of the Land of Sky Regional Council and director of the Mountain Area Workforce Development Board, most WNC businesses are paying more than or close to the living wage — not out of generosity, but out of necessity. As of January, Ramsey reports, there were over 24,000 job openings in the Asheville area.

“With a 2.8% unemployment rate in the mountains, if you’re not paying at least $14 to $16 an hour, you’re not getting anyone to work,” Ramsey explains, noting that Asheville hit an average pay of $27 an hour in November. “I even know of a Chick-fil-A in Hendersonville that’s paying $19 an hour.”

But pay isn’t necessarily the main factor in the area’s workforce shortage, Ramsey continues. Many people are leaving the labor pool in the so-called “Great Resignation” due to fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic. Baby boomers are retiring at higher rates, more people are seeking work-from-home jobs, and a lack of sufficient day care challenges working parents.

And when employees do look for work, they’re asking for more than pay from employers. “We’re learning that the need for flexibility is a higher priority, as well as a company culture that offers professional development and opportunity for advancement,” Ramsey says.

To meet the demand for staff, Ramsey argues, employers need to expand their hiring sources and simplify job descriptions and requirements. “If the position doesn’t really require a degree, then maybe consider taking that off the job posting and rely on in-house training,” he says. “Employers need to consider hiring people with criminal backgrounds and substance abuse issues, the elderly and people with disabilities.”


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One thought on “WNC reacts to new living wage rate

  1. jaloren

    This will not be popular, but it seems to me that as businesses raise wages for employees, they have to raise prices on goods and services to cover the increased cost of wages. Hence….inflation. Or else they take a reduction in profits. If you cannot make a profit, then why be in business? I’m not talking about Elon Musk, Google, Facebook and the like, but small business owners. Keep raising prices on goods and services, then those folks (employees) still cannot afford the goods and services. And the cycle continues, with more inflation.

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